National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf James McNeill Whistler (artist)
American, 1834 - 1903
Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, c. 1864/1868
oil on canvas
overall: 61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 1/8 in.)
Widener Collection
On View
From the Tour: Whistler, Sargent, and Tanner — Americans Abroad in the Late 1800s
Object 6 of 7

After reworking the National Gallery's Wapping in 1864, Whistler decided to abandon painting outdoors. Thereafter, he boated on the river Thames to observe quietly London's mists, twilights, and starry evenings. Upon returning to his studio, Whistler created his later landscapes from memory or sketches. In Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, the tenements and factories on the distant Battersea shoreline are transformed into a fantasy of spires and domes. A few diagonal spars enliven the quiet geometry of masts and hulls, docks and passersby.

The subtle tonal scheme is composed entirely of muted variations on the complementary colors of blue and orange. Whistler stated, "As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight." In other words, various musical notes relate to a dominant key, just as various colors relate to a unifying hue in painting.

In writing a review about another nocturnal landscape, the British art critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in 1878. When a lawyer asked whether two days' work justified that picture's high price, Whistler curtly replied, "No. I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime." This famous retort established a legal precedent for artists' acquired experiences. Whistler won the case, but the proceedings left him bankrupt.

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